All three levels of government need to do much better in setting public expectations and in managing COVID-19’s impacts, write Hugh O’Reilly, Matthew Bourkas, and James K. Stewart. 

By Hugh O’Reilly, Matthew Bourkas and James K. Stewart, May 18, 2021

"What we’ve got here is failure to communicate"

From the movie, Cool Hand Luke

With Canada’s accelerating vaccine rollout this spring, Canadians are eagerly anticipating an end to the lockdowns implemented in response to COVID-19’s third wave. Yet, while Canada’s overall number of cases has declined by mid-May from its early 2021 peak, emerging variants and serious weaknesses in government communications and policy risk limiting the benefits of vaccine successes. Addressing these deficiencies is essential to successfully transition to living effectively with COVID-19 and dealing with future sources of pandemic risk.

Canadians need confidence in the approaches of all three levels of government to avoid complacency and reduced compliance with health protocols during and after the vaccine rollout. Yet, communication problems continue to be worrying features of Canada’s pandemic response.

The first rule of crisis management is effective communications. With the COVID-19 crisis, that means managing public expectations and engaging people’s support for public health measures. But with widespread confusion over government communications on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, frequent vacillation on lockdown restrictions and shifting timetables, governments in Canada have prolonged the pandemic and frustrated citizens.

As we wrote back in November, Canada “cannot approach the pandemic as an acute crisis that relies excessively on emergency lockdown measures while not addressing the serious weaknesses in communications, testing, tracing and treatment.” Six months later, there has been too little progress, with governments apparently failing to appreciate that even with vaccinations ramping up, COVID is likely to be an endemic problem for the foreseeable future.

Government communications are understandably challenging during the pandemic. The scale, speed and rapidly changing nature of COVID-19 have been extraordinary, and the information overload of pandemic-related news is staggering. Effective communication is more complex in Canada given the fractured nature of governmental responsibility for public health and the ensuing political blame game.

While these complicating factors help explain messaging miscues in the early months of the crisis, persistently inadequate and too often counter-productive communication over one year later is highly problematic and hamstrings effective COVID-19 management.

Maintaining public confidence in health safety measures and the vaccination process requires message discipline among all three levels of government, clear and straightforward content, and effective planning. Public expectations need to be managed, especially given the multiple waves of COVID-19, emerging variants and renewed lockdowns. Governments must clearly specify that their approaches are conditions dependent (ongoing low incidence of COVID-19 infections, much-reduced ICU admissions, etc.), and not time dependent (until a specific date or holiday) to avoid further popular disenchantment.

While some areas of government communications have improved this spring, continued confusion in lockdown announcements and public differences among scientific advisory bodies have decreased trust in government competence, reducing compliance with required protocols (e.g., social distancing). Too often, government announcements are at odds with consensus scientific advice, especially in the delayed implementation of tougher containment measures when infections accelerate.

The realities of continued variant evolution suggest that COVID-19 will likely become endemic. Governments must communicate this likelihood, including setting out explicit plans for contingencies, and committing to support refining drug development and distribution logistics to develop variant-specific vaccines and therapeutics. They need to also communicate that if broad-based uptake on vaccinations is achieved and key health protocols are observed, things are likely to improve dramatically in the near future, as we are seeing in the US and UK. In doing so, it is vital that government messaging and policy avoid the complacency that led to the second and third waves.

Better communications include more science-based, practical messaging to help ensure success after sufficient vaccine uptake occurs. Government policies need to establish easily understood future protocols for mask wearing, social distancing and close/high-contact activities as well as air travel and Canada-US land crossings. This will require learning from the policy and messaging mistakes that amplified the second and third waves, and understanding and incorporating the successful policies of other countries.

Living with COVID-19 will require a far greater commitment in focus and resources to testing, tracing and treatment (the “3Ts”). Commitment to the 3Ts will help ensure that future outbreaks are rapidly identified and better contained. Essential changes start with addressing Canada’s conflicting policy of restricting asymptomatic testing, which effectively bars widespread screening efforts and worsens Canada’s very limited (and belated) use of rapid testing. Slovakia’s success with rapid testing bears emphasis here.  More effective screening is crucial, especially for educators to restart in-person learning and for firms to successfully return to office(s) when vaccinations are widespread.

Better screening allows for better tracing in high-risk workplaces and other close/high-contact locations, where national and provincial results have fallen far short of what is needed. Montreal is a real exception, having apparently avoided a third wave so far, thanks in large part to an effective contact-tracing regime. Seconding senior executive(s) from successful, major digital firms and giving them the necessary authority to oversee the overhaul of provincial and federal tracing systems and to assist businesses and educators could help achieve essential improvements.

Further treatment gains to reduce COVID-19 mortality and hospitalizations can be made beyond the therapeutic successes achieved with antivirals and corticosteroids. These include the increased use of monoclonal antibodies in hospitals for moderate COVID-19 cases that are at significant risk of becoming severe. More effective deployment of monoclonal antibodies will require greater coordination among outpatients, testing facilities, and hospitals.

For people to understand and continue to adhere to protocols, governments need to shift from time-dependent outcomes to conditions-dependent measures of success to communicate what has and what has not worked. All three levels of government need to do much better in setting public expectations and in managing COVID-19’s impacts, especially as we move towards the pandemic’s likely endemic phase. Canada needs an approach that combines vaccines, messaging based on outcomes, and the 3Ts to successfully transition from the pandemic.

Hugh O’Reilly is executive director of Innovate Cities and a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute. Matthew Bourkas is completing his PhD in life sciences with a focus on infectious diseases at the University of Toronto. James K. Stewart is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and president of Pol-Econ Canada Research Inc.

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